Mid-Life Heart Disease Linked To Late-Life Dementia

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A healthy heart leads to a healthy brain. Countless studies have shown that the same risk factors associated with stroke and heart attacks are also risk factors for dementia, specifically what is known as “vascular dementia.” Vascular dementia is caused by conditions such as stroke or high cholesterol that lead to blocked or reduced blood flow to the brain. For this reason, it makes sense that things like smoking, diabetes, and obesity – which all increase the risk of heart disease — would also increase a person’s chances of developing vascular dementia and may seem like pretty big risk factors. It may be easy to say, “That’s not me.”

However, a new study published in the October 2017 issue of JAMA Neurology found that these risks may be even more nuanced. This study, conducted by individuals at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, suggests that even individuals with blood pressure that is only slightly elevated may be at an increased risk of dementia. This even applies to individuals who had “prehypertension” or blood pressure with a systolic reading from 120-139 or a diastolic reading from 80-89. Those individuals with prehypertension had a 31 percent increased risk for developing dementia. As blood pressure increased, so did this risk. Individuals with hypertension or “high blood pressure” had a 39 percent increased risk for developing dementia. Other heart health indicators found to be associated with increased risk for dementia included diabetes (77 percent increased risk) and smoking in midlife (41 percent increased risk).

While this study cannot say for sure that these risk factors are the cause of dementia, it certainly shows a strong association. What makes this study even more compelling is the number of individuals studied and the length of time they were followed. This study consisted of nearly 16,000 individuals living in North Carolina, Maryland, Mississippi, and Minnesota. Study participants ranged from 44 to 66 years of age with an average age of 57. Researchers followed these individuals for about 25 years. During this time period, 1,516 individuals developed dementia. And, as was expected, the greatest risk factor for dementia was age. As age increased, so did the likelihood of having a dementia diagnosis. However, those mid-life indicators of heart health (borderline or high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking) were significant predictors of late-life dementia.


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So what does this all mean? Well, it does not necessarily mean that if you have these risk factors you will develop dementia. However, it may mean you are at an increased risk. The good news is that most of these are modifiable risk factors. With regards to hypertension and prehypertension, you can regularly check and record blood pressure measurements. If you notice the readings going up, or they are not within the healthy range, talk to your physician. If you currently smoke, talk to your physician about developing a quitting plan. And if you are obese, try to adjust your diet or exercise routine. No matter what, we can all take steps to reduce our risk. We don’t have to let our mid-life risk factors determine our late-life brain health.